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Fracking’s ‘split estates’ bury profit for many

TYLER COUNTY, W.Va.—What used to be a hayfield on the Jackson property is now a well pad shaped like a bowling alley, with drilling rigs, rumbling diesel engines and steel tanks containing thousands of gallons of chemicals.

The Jacksons didn’t give the gas company permission to operate there, but they have to live with the noise, dust and smell it generates.

They won’t get any royalty checks when the wells start producing natural gas, but they still have to pay taxes on a field they can no longer use.

The family has owned the rural property since the 1950s, but the Jacksons are just the surface owners. That means they control the top of the ground while someone else owns the mineral rights and dictates what can be taken from beneath the soil.

These “split estates,” as they’re called, are common in West Virginia and throughout the Appalachian region, said Greg Buppert, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

They’re not common in the Fredericksburg area, Buppert said, especially in the Taylorsville basin where a Texas company has leased 84,000 acres for potential gas drilling. 

Buppert believes there aren’t any split estates east and south of Fredericksburg, where drilling could take place.

In West Virginia, the estates were split decades to hundreds of years ago, according to a report by Alan Collins, a professor at West Virginia University. 

Landowners sold or traded their mineral rights to other individuals or coal and lumber companies. Or they left their property to one group of heirs and the mineral rights to another, Collins wrote.

Many families, like the Jacksons, didn’t realize they didn’t own mineral rights until gas companies came calling. 

As many reap the “enormous” economic gains from natural gas in the Marcellus Shale region, “surface owners are often excluded,” Collins wrote.

His study looked at more than 1,400 completed shale gas well permits in 2012. He eliminated wells owned by gas companies, governments and corporations.

That left 935 wells. Collins discovered that 70 percent of them were on split estates, meaning the decision to lease the land for gas drilling was controlled by someone who didn’t live on the property.

Surface owners are supposed to be notified of drilling and seismic testing and be compensated for the loss of their property, Collins wrote.

But Teresa Jackson said her family wasn’t notified, and their names aren’t listed on any permits.

She and her husband, Terry, both chemical plant workers, refused the $15,000 the gas company offered.

They filed a lawsuit, suing for the loss of land, the disturbance to property and lack of notification. Their case has never come to court—it’s been postponed repeatedly—and the Jacksons have spent about $15,000 on legal fees and water testing.

She realizes her family doesn’t own the rights to what’s in the ground, but she can’t abide by what the company has done above it. An explosion at the well pad in January spread black goo over the area, and the slime eventually oozed into a creek. 

Last week, March 28, her family and others were forced to evacuate after getting sick from smells coming from the well.

The Jacksons stopped drinking from the faucet when drilling started. They use bottled water for everything, including bottles Teresa Jackson mixes with formula for her grandson.

“They have no right to pollute my property, to desecrate the land we own,” she said. “If I was out here, pouring chemicals on my property, I’d be in jail.”

Jackson, a cancer survivor, said she and her husband moved to the isolated area three years ago so she could plant an organic garden. 

“We chose to live this way, we love it out here,” she said. “We don’t want to live next to an industrial zone.”

Bill Patterson, a West Virginia native who lives in Atlanta, is on the opposite side of the fence. He said it’s unfortunate that people who were enjoying their “nice, peaceful world” suddenly were invaded by all this noisy equipment.

“When these people bought those nice quiet homesteads, the rules were the same as they are now,” Patterson said, alluding to the split between surface and mineral rights. “They bought into this.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425